Sunday, September 30, 2007

Scary Stories

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893)

Fear - such a natural response to the unknown and yet one that is also so easily perverted. This is one of those areas among many in children's literature, where there is a fine line to be trodden and where there is likely to be dispute among reasonable people as to where the line ought to be drawn. Debilitating fear is just as dangerous as uninformed fearlessness and vice-versa.

Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, it takes practice to believe in impossible things:

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll

One impossible thing I believe is that children ought to be able to have a childhood in which they are free of adults' pre-occupations, phobias, over-indulgences, over-involvement and micro-management.

Another impossible thing I choose to believe is that children are better off learning through mistakes early and as children rather than later as adults. That fear in moderation can be a good thing.

Yet a third impossible thing I believe is that children will do what they do and yet parents are obligated to provide tutelage and guidance to their children.

And finally, most improbably, I believe that all three things can be achieved simultaneously and without too many broken bones.

I am not up to six impossible beliefs before breakfast but I am working on it.

One of the lessons I have always worked to instill in our children is an understanding of the difference between instinctive fear and conscious concern. There are some fears and repulsions that just part of our human and biological heritage: snakes, heights, rotten flesh, the dark, the strange/different/foreign, etc. Our bodies tell us there is a problem that we should shy away from and usually force us to do something about it long before our minds have even begun to acknowledge the danger. We need to respect the long millennia of learning encoded into our bodies, but also to use our brains. We open ourselves to all sorts of disasters when we respond to instinct alone, but we ignore instinct at our own peril.

Because of the shape of the Australian coastline, many of their beaches are cursed with strong rip-tides and undertow. These conditions can be hazardous even for strong swimmers. When we lived in Australia, we enjoyed swimming at the beach and needed the children to be concerned and alert, but did not want to frighten them away from swimming. Hence our constant refrain: respect the water but don't fear it, an admonition that is equally applicable to all our instinctive fears.

Beyond striking this balance, between instinctive fear and dismissive disregard, there is also the challenge of what scary things should children be exposed to at what points in time. It is a precarious judgment because it has little to do with calendar age and everything to do with life experience and conceptual maturity. We have all read, even as adults, a story which introduced some disturbing idea that perhaps gripped us at the time of the reading but then left us with disturbed sleep or nightmares later.

I recollect two such experiences. Once, when I was six or seven, we had returned home to Tulsa to visit family. We were staying in an apartment. For whatever reason I had been allowed to watch some TV and on came a 1930s Frankenstein movie in black and white. I was gripped. The spine tingling anticipation of disaster was wonderful. I don't recall being afraid of Frankenstein the creature, but I do remember the nightmares over the next few weeks. The nightmares weren't about creatures or death or being brought back to life - they were about the idea of one's brain being put into another body. A dissonant conceptual fear. I just wasn't ready to grapple with that concept.

Equally disturbing but for entirely different reasons, was the night I stayed up into the small hours of the morning reading. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. It was past lights out but, not having read him before, I had just that day plunged into Sherlock Holmes and was in the first rush of consumption. One story led to another and to another. I hoped that if I kept my bedroom door closed and the light covered, perhaps my parents wouldn't notice when they come to bed. And they didn't. But fate always has something in store for you. For me it was finishing The Speckled Band at 1am. Oh what a great story. And oh how hard to get to sleep with that image of the snake slithering between rooms. Not that there were any snakes in Sweden in the mid-winter. Not that there were any vents between rooms. There was no rational basis for fear. But somehow, reading that story illicitly in the small hours of the morning made it all that much more disturbing.

The final decision on what scary stories are appropriate for which children has to be made by the person closest to the child. External advice can be given only in the broadest brush strokes. Small children are the easiest candidates for whom to find scary stories. Their fear portfolio is pretty much limited to those instinctive fears and their life experience precludes much sophisticated forecasting of what will happen next. Pretty much a surprise event at the end, delivered loudly, is the perfect scary story.

It becomes increasingly difficult to choose exactly the right balance between instinctive fear and deeply psychological fear as children grow older. There is a lot of material out there that is simply crudely terrifying. The author seeks to press all the instinctive fear buttons without really developing a story line or drama. The selections below are those which use fear selectively to move the story line along, rather than those in which fear is substituted for a good story line.

We hope you enjoy the list below and welcome other suggestions of scary stories for children.

Picture Books

The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss (What Was I Scared Of? Is the scary story in this collection)

Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Don Wood

The Fierce Yellow Pumpkin by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Richard Egielski

A Dark, Dark Tale by Ruth Brown

Independent Books

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell

The Improbable Cat by Allan Ahlberg and illustrated by Peter Bailey

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Young Adults

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and illustrated by Nenad Jakesevic

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Elsa Beskow

Elsa Beskow
February 11, 1874 - June 30, 1953 Stockholm, Sweden

If you have never visited Scandinavia and you are casting around for ideas of places to visit, I would suggest that it should be close to the top of your wish-list. Sweden in particular. I was very fortunate to live there in the early 1970's. It was a somewhat unfortunate time to be an American resident given America's involvement in the Vietnam war to which Sweden was strongly opposed.

Ignoring that small bump, though, Sweden has been one of my favorite places that I have ever lived. Physically, it is a relatively inhospitable countryside with lots of granite and, in general, poor soil but it is still strikingly beautiful with its forests, lakes, silver birches, clean air and balanced living. And, if you grew up accustomed to a winter environment, the winters can be spectacular. If you are a sunshine person, it is a different story of course.

Swedes have developed a knack for making the most of the modest endowments of their country, particularly in the arts. As if to compensate for the half of the year in which the sun makes only a perfunctory appearance (and even then is often hidden behind clouds), the Scandinavian style tends towards a simplicity, lightness, and colorfulness which I find immensely attractive. One of the artists whose work you will see scattered around the TTMD site is Carl Larsson who is very much in this tradition of light, colorful painting.

While there is a stereotype of the morose, gloomy Scandinavian, probably based on the dark winters and Ingmar Bergman; in fact, there is a strong tradition of sociability despite varying levels of formality.

Interlude for Scandinavian Joke Playing to Stereotypes

Six Scandinavians are shipwrecked and cast adrift in a lifeboat. After the first day the two Danes have organized a party with singing and carousing. At the end of three months being adrift, the two Norwegians finally figure out how to distill alcohol from seawater and set to drinking their concerns away.

At the end of six months of drifting, the first Swede turns to the second and says, "Hello, my name is Anders".

One of the more amazing cultural coincidences to occur, as they sometimes do, was that two seminal children's writers should have lived basically in the same time and place. Astrid Lindgren (of Pippi Longstocking fame) and Elsa Beskow, both Swedes living in the first half of the 20th century, had a significant impact on children's books far outside the boundaries of their relatively small country. Elsa Beskow (February 11, 1874 - June 30, 1953 ) preceded Lindgren (November 14, 1907 - January 28, 2002) by a generation but there was a period of ten or so years when they overlapped in writing books. I don't know and have never seen anything indicating whether these two giants ever met.

Astrid Lindgren was by far the more prolific of the two and was strictly an author with a wide range of writing styles and themes. Elsa Beskow was by training an artist who illustrated all the books she wrote, of which there were approximately forty. And whereas Lindgren wrote everything from light hearted humorous stories to deeply felt stories addressing death and tragedy, Elsa Beskow's work tends to be somewhat more straightforward.

That is not to say that Beskow's work is insubstantial. She wrote beautifully illustrated ABC books as well as a popular early reader that was used extensively in the 1930's. What she is best known for, though, are a cluster of twenty or so books that depict children, usually in a Swedish summer countryside. Nature is both abundant and central to the story. While the drawings are all done in a realistically beautiful watercolor and ink combination with crisp, but not garish, colors, there is usually some element of fantasy. Typically, the children are either dealing with personifications of the plants, trees and fruits and/or the children have shrunk to the size of those fruits so that they are essentially elf-like.

There are often creatures from Scandinavian mythology lurking around the edges of the stories: elves, gnomes, witches, etc. But usually this is, as it were, local color. These stories are beautiful places where there may be some tension and drama but no-one is ever at real risk of terrible things happening. Tragedy and all the other evils in Pandora's box just don't get much of a look-in.

It is interesting to note that there were three children's book illustrators working across the globe at this time, each of whom worked primarily in watercolor, each of whom used their national flora and fauna as the primary setting of their stories, each of whom used an element of fantasy in their stories, each of whom evoked the best and most positive of their respective national traditions, and each of whose work became iconic for children's stories of their nation, Elsa Beskow (Sweden, February 11, 1874 - June 30, 1953), Beatrix Potter (England, July 28, 1866 - December 22, 1943) , and May Gibbs (Australia January 17, 1877 - November 27, 1969).

As is often the case with positive, cheery stories where the protagonists focus on being kind and doing the right thing, Beskow's books went through a period of criticism in the 1960's and 70's for being too middle-class, not concerned enough with the dark side of life, inappropriately positive, and so on. Fortunately, most children don't have advanced degrees in criticism and victimology and so Beskow's books have gone on being admired and enjoyed from generation to generation.

Picture Books

Around the Year by Elsa Beskow Recommended

Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Children of the Forest by Elsa Beskow Recommended

Christopher's Harvest Time by Elsa Beskow Highly Recommended

Peter and Lotta's Adventure by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Peter and Lotta's Christmas by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Peter's Old House by Elsa Beskow Highly Recommended

The Sun Egg by Elsa Beskow Recommended

Woody, Hazel and Little Pip by Elsa Beskow Suggested

Friday, September 28, 2007

Before the Dawn

Before the Dawn Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade

One of the many pleasures of reading is when you come across a book that is not only well crafted but also informs you and causes you to think about some subject in a way you have not done before. It is even nicer when it sometimes confirms things you had suspected but could not prove.

I have just recently finished Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn which was published in 2006 and basically brings you up to date on what the cascading DNA research tells us about the development of human beings.

I have always been fascinated by human history and pre-history. I can recall even in early grades being intrigued by, but not quite understanding, the well illustrated Time-Life type books laying out the evolution of man through his various shapes and capabilities. I found the plethora of forms (australopithecines, homo erectus, cro-magnon man, Neanderthals, etc.) fascinating and confusing. Who was first, who followed whom, how were they related, how did they interact, etc.

It wasn't till much later that I began to understand that part of my confusion was not from my short-comings of comprehension as I had imagined, but simply the sparsity and contradictoriness of the archaeological record. Archaeologists, historians and paleontologists were telling the best story they could but spinning that story from a thin factual basis.

For all that DNA was discovered fifty or so years ago and despite the impression that what we are beginning to understand now seems like light years of progress, it only seems so because we knew so little. We are still at the beginning of understanding the information wrapped up in DNA and its biological, evolutionary and historical implications. Twenty years from now we will see our current knowledge as only the first stair-step up a very long stairway.

That said, it is easy to lose track, in the midst of all the new reports of discoveries, the set-backs of assumptions, and the bold extrapolations of knowledge, just where we are in our knowing. What has been settled, what has been indicated but is yet to be proven, what old assumptions have been rendered inoperative, and what are the likely scenarios for the future given the research underway now.

Wade does a great job of winnowing out some of the chaff from the wheat. He is suitably cautious about what is known, what is speculated, and what is still unknowable. In the first few chapters he basically brings you up to speed on current knowledge and thinking and then begins to take you further and further afield where knowledge is less and less certain. He is clear that we journeying in un-chartered seas and that the final chapters are substantially speculation based on a few meager indicators. It is fascinating speculation none-the-less.

One of the other things Wade does well is integrate what we have discovered from DNA with that which is known from the archaeological record, from the study of languages, and socio-biology. In some instances the records are mutually supportive, in others there are contradictions that are not yet resolved.

A few of the nuggets which Before the Dawn either confirmed for me or revealed for the first time.

• Modern man's departure from Africa can be dated now with reasonable certainty to 50,000 - 100,000 years ago across the southern straights of the Red Sea. Wade goes for the nearer date of departure of 50,000 years.

• The initial departure from Africa consisted of an amazingly small group of people, probably less than a thousand people and possibly only 150. The most ancient lineages and most diverse DNA remains in Africa.

• In what seems like a generational forced march, people then proceeded along the shorelines of South Asia, splitting in southeast-asia, one group heading north and back into the interior of Asia but also then outwards into the Pacific and ultimately and belatedly into North America across the Bering Straights twelve to fifteen thousand years ago, while the second group headed southwards into Australia 40,000 years ago.

• Europe was most likely populated by people moving up from South and Central Asia into continental Europe 45,000 years ago.

• Modern man coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe for some fifteen thousand years before the Neanderthals disappeared. Whether there was any population mixing in those fifteen thousand years remains to be determined though the evidence suggests not.

• The development of the differences in racial features among the diaspora of modern humans pretty much occurred as recently as only 10,000 years ago.

• The evolution of the human genome continues apace with some capabilities, such as lactose tolerance in northwestern Europe, arising only 7,000 years ago.

• The interface between physical/biological evolution and cultural/behavorial/intellectual development remains murky, confused, confusing, and subject to preposterous abuse by polemicists, but does indicate some possible linkages.

• And on and on.

Wade does a good job of presenting complex ideas well, hedging his arguments with caution, and yet laying out the surprising amount of knowledge that has been accumulated in five brief years. While archaeologists and biologists will always have to work hand in hand, we are no longer hostage to random and occasional discoveries of bones and settlements. We now have a much more detailed record to which to turn, albeit in a language we scarcely yet understand.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Stories from England

This week's essay is supposed to be about English Stories. Where to begin? I feel like I have gone fishing for whales with a length of tooth floss and a bobby pin. I think it might have been in one of the Flashman books, Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Fraser, where the anti-hero Flashman caustically visualizes the British generals, having been told that Britain has now declared war, looking at a map of Russia, and imagines the conversation going something like this.

General 1: Well, I suppose we need to invade.

Pensive silence as they examine the map

General 2: Deuced big country, what?

At least that's how I recollect it. And certainly that's how it feels thinking about the width and depth of British contributions to children's literature. To winnow the forest a little, I will for the time being omit highlighting the obvious authors (Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Lewis Carroll, R.L. Stevenson, J.A. Barrie, Thomas Malory, George Orwell, Anna Sewell, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hughes, John Bunyan, Roald Dahl, Hugh Lofting, P.L. Travers, etc.) and focus on others that are as well established in the British national mental attic but are not as well known here.

Straight out of the gate though, I would have to observe that as I think about it, there are some differences in the traditions of children's reading between Britain and the US. I lived in England in the mid and late 60's, and around about Europe through the 70's so much of my reading was either directly or indirectly influenced by England.

One of the differences that I have observed is that England had, and still to a degree, has a distinctive slice of children's comics quite different from that in the US. There used to be at least three types of comics. There were action comics like Victor and Eagle which were targeted primarily to boys. These comics were actually a compilation of comic strips. In other words, there were a series of stories in each edition, all rendered as comics but each with different art work and a different feel. Almost all of the strips were action stories of one sort or another. WWII stories were still big, as were space strips, humorous strips about school, etc.

There was another category of comics that really differed more by taste (or the absence thereof) than anything else. The ones I recall were Beano and Dandy. You would not mistake them for high-brow or improving literature, but if you were six or eight years, you couldn't find much that was funnier. Beano and Dandy were still primarily pitched to boys but I think there was a pretty high cross-readership. Think of the Three Stooges or Groucho Marx in comic strip form and you have the measure of it.

Finally there was the high end of the market - magazines like Look and Learn and World of Wonder. These had a few action strips but also serials about all sorts of things: unsolved crimes, mysteries at sea, castles, serializations of classics, famous airplanes, etc., all wonderfully illustrated. I loved the World of Wonder and looked forward to its weekly arrival. I have heard it speculated that parents may have liked it better than kids because it was "improving". That could be, but I certainly enjoyed them anyway.

So there was a kind of hierarchy of unapproved reading from barely redeemable to almost respectable that at least supplemented if not substantially displaced picture books. Lamentably, and curiously, all of these are gone now except for the perennial Beano and Dandy. Having lived in England recently, we still receive those magazines - primitive as the humor might be all three of the kids still enjoy them. As a parenthetical note, please see the link to a group that is bringing back editions of Look and Learn.

For whatever reason, I don't remember any picture books from my time as a child in England other than the ubiquitous comic annuals. I am sure there must have been some but I cannot really speak to them. What there is, is a plethora of wonderful books that haven't made it across the ocean (obviously many have as well) that are quintessentially English. Unfortunately in most instances only one or two titles of a series are available over here, but we are working to make more available in the coming months.

One of the more prolific authors, (if I recall correctly, responsible for more than 700 titles over her lifetime) was Enid Blyton who repeatedly wrote series of books that were both iconic of their time but despite later, politically sensitive criticism, stubbornly remained and remain popular today. These included Famous Five and Secret Seven, each series consisting of twenty or more titles, the number referring to the number of friends in the respective mystery solving teams. Famous Five was sort of an advanced Learn to Read series. They were narrative stories but at a simple level well geared to early reading. Secret Seven followed the same format but at a more advanced reading level. Blyton was responsible for all sorts of other iconic series as well such as Noddy, The Magic Faraway Tree series, The Wishing Chair series, etc.

For those of your children smitten with the idea of English boarding schools from the Harry Potter books, Blyton wrote three separate series all set in girls' boarding schools, Malory Towers, St. Claire's, and the Naughtiest Girl. None of these are available right now in the US, but we are working to make them available.

And of course there were the stories that were inescapably tinged by imperialism, anathema to many today but also fascinating in their evocation of a time and place. There are two that are top of mind, the first being Captain W.E. Johns and his Biggles series. As described in Clare Morrall's article in Slightly Foxed, Johns was a pilot in World War I who later became a prolific author (169 books of which 104 were in the Biggles series). The titles tell it all The Camels are Coming, Biggles Flies East, Biggles in Africa, Biggles in Borneo, etc. As Morrall summarizes it, "There is still something pleasing about the simplicity of the stories in our cynical age - plenty of non-stop action with no worries about psychological damage or post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is no ambivalence. We know who should win, and we know that they will."

Another writer of imperial vintage was G.A Henty who concentrated on children's fiction, producing more than 120 works in the course of his life (December 8, 1832 - November 16, 1902). Most of his works were of general historical fiction (The Cat of Bubastes, A Tale of Ancient Egypt; A Knight of the White Cross, A Tale of the Siege of Rhodes; Through Russian Snows, A Story of Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow; With Lee in Virginia, A Story of the American Civil War, etc.), and many were tales of the Empire, such as With Clive in India, The Beginnings of an Empire; The Dash For Khartoum, A Tale of the Nile Expedition; A Final Reckoning, A Tale of Bush Life in Australia; To Herat and Cabul, A Story of the First Afghan War, etc. As with Biggles, you wouldn't anticipate moral ambiguity, self-doubt, debilitating sensitivity to the inner motivations of your opponent. What you get, serving after serving, is a brave but modest hero seeking to do the decent thing. The names change but the motivation remains the same. Fortunately many of Henty's books are still in print and very popular among those seeking good adventure stories with a dash of history.

We featured Edward Arizzone on July 22nd, whose Tim series is iconic of that period, perhaps 1930-1960. His cousin, Christiana Brand, wrote and he illustrated, another classic, Nurse Matilda.

From an earlier muscular imperial period there is of course Rider Haggard whose story telling capabilities ensure that the stories are still well-read today. Such titles as King Solomon's Mines (which I recently re-read), She, and Allan Quartermain, remain in print with others periodically coming back.

Denys Watkins-Pitchford wrote under the pseudonym BB. He also illustrated his books. The greater part of his works were outdoor books for adults pertaining to countryside pursuits, hunting, and fishing. However, his most iconic book was for children, Little Grey Men, a story centered on the last gnomes in England.

John Buchan, was a man of action and affairs (Governor General of Canada for five years, an elder of his church, a journalist and politician) as well as an accomplished author credited with founding the spy thriller genre with Thirty-Nine Steps.

Arrgh! I have to stop and yet there is still Orlando the Marmalade Cat to discuss, C.S. Forester, Ladybird Books, Puffin books, Elephant Bill, E. Nesbit, Charles Kingsley and The Water Babies, Michael Bond and the Paddington Bear series, and so much else. All in good time I suppose, but what sweet pickings.

Independent Reader

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser Highly Recommended

The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton Suggested

The Mountain of Adventure and The Ship of Adventure by Enid Blyton Suggested

A Knight of the White Cross by G.A. Henty Suggested

The Cat of Bubastes by G.A. Henty Suggested

The Dash for Khartoum by G.A. Henty Suggested

With Lee in Virginia by G.A. Henty Suggested

Little Tim And the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone Highly Recommended

Nurse Matilda by Edward Ardizzone Recommended

Allan Quartermain by H. Rider Haggard Suggested

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard and illustrated by James Danly Highly Recommended

She by H. Rider Haggard and illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen and Charles H. Kerr Recommended

The Little Grey Men by BB (Denys Watkins-Pitchford) Recommended

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan Recommended

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley Recommended

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond Highly Recommended

Sterling North

One of the drawbacks of growing up overseas is that there are some books/authors that may be known here in the US that just never cross your radar screen. Such was the case for me with the author Sterling North and his best known work, Rascal a Memoir of a Better Era. I have only in recent years come to know it through the eyes of my children who have all discovered and enjoyed the story.

North was born November 4, 1906 in Edgerton, Wisconsin. (What is it about the Upper Midwest? They seem to churn out wonderful children's authors like corn.) His mother died when North was only seven and he was raised by his father and older sister. Raised might be a little overstating the case. As related in Rascal a Memoir of a Better Era, which is substantially autobiographical, his father was a somewhat dreamy, indulgent presence, when present at all, often being away on business. As a consequence, North was to a degree self-reared with an autonomy and independence which echoes that classic of American Boyhood, Tom Sawyer.

Firmly setting the benchmark for that autonomy is the building by North of his eighteen foot canoe - in the living room! It is that sort of detail and event which grabs a child's attention and perhaps reminds an adult. At one point in my childhood, probably when I was about six years old, we lived briefly in a newly built suburb of Houston. Among the things I remember is that a block or two from our house were some woods with a stream through it. Now it couldn't have been all that big a stream. But a moving body of water it was and to a six year old boy's mind that meant that one ought to have a raft to float upon that stream. So, probably to my mother's consternation, I set about building said raft in our back garden in the shade of an old oak tree.

There were plenty of materials, plywood, 2x4's etc. left over from our move to the house as well as from on-going construction in the neighborhood. I had a grand time planning, building, adding, having another idea and adding some more. Layer was added to layer, "cabins" on top of crawl spaces. The monstrosity that took form, a nautical Tower of Babel, was my personal delight and had absolutely no chance of being moved at all, to say nothing of being transported to the stream, much less staying in one piece or floating had it by some miracle been launched. I always had the somewhat wistful idea that perhaps a big storm would come along with such flooding that we would all have to seek refuge on my proto-ark but that never happened. I have no idea whatever became of my proto-ark but I sure remember the pleasure of building it.

Likewise with Rascal a Memoir of a Better Era, which is North's tale of a particular year when he eleven years old when he captured and raised a baby raccoon, Rascal. Still wrestling with the loss of his mother, enjoying/suffering what would today probably be regarded as criminal neglect, it was for North truly a memoir of a better era. Raising Rascal, making decisions about his welfare, confronting moral decisions about his own actions - he grew up far more than the twelve months would suggest.

Part of the beauty of the story is that it deals with weighty matters but from a child's perspective and without over-weighted moralizing or wailing of unfairness. He had issues to deal with, he learned how to deal with them, life went on. A child reading the story enjoys it for its deft touch of understanding what it would be like to be a child in those circumstances and can relate, be heartened and grieve with the protagonist. The Young Adult and Adult can read the story and understand deeper levels of implication.

But North was more than the author of a single home-run. His early career was as a newspaperman, first in Chicago and then in New York. He took up authorial writing in parallel with his career as a reporter with his first book The Pedro Garino: The Adventures of a Negro Sea-Captain in Africa, published in 1929. He wrote steadily throughout his newspaper career, producing books for both adults and children. In 1957 be became the founding editor of the Houghton Mifflin imprint, North Star Books.

Many of North's early books quarry his own childhood or are set in the Midwest. And, as so often happens, many of his books were originally stories created for his two children. Growing up in a rural setting, he had many animals as pets beyond Rascal the raccoon. These included cats, dogs, skunks and a crow named Edgar Allan Poe (AKA Poe the Crow and whose vice was to perch near congregating Methodists cawing rudely at them). Not surprisingly, animals are the center for many of his stories including Midnight and Jeremiah, So Dear to My Heart, and of course, Rascal.

In his career at North Star books, North edited more than thirty history books as well as writing half dozen himself including George Washington, Frontier Colonel and Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House.

So Dear to My Heart and Rascal were both made into films.

Fortunately four of his five most popular books (Rascal, The Wolfling, George Washington and Abe Lincoln) are all still in print.

Try them out, but start with Rascal to warm your heart and grab the attention of your Independent Readers.

Sterling North passed away December 22, 1974 in Morristown, New Jersey.

Independent Readers

Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House by Sterling North Suggested

George Washington, Frontier Colonel by Sterling North Suggested

Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North and illustrated by John Schoenherr Highly Recommended

The Wolfling: A Documentary Novel of the Eighteen-Seventies by Sterling North Suggested

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark by Frederick Tudgay, 1872

I don't know if you saw it at the time but back at the beginning of the summer, May 21st, there was a fire aboard the last surviving clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, which is moored on the Thames in London. It broke my heart to see the initial pictures and early reports which seemed to indicate that the ship, built in 1869, might almost be a complete loss.

In this quarter's Sea History, however, there is encouraging news. Jessica Beverly reports that the Cutty Sark had been under restoration at the time of the fire, and that

"More than half her original hull planking, all three masts and rigging, coach houses, the master's saloon, deck furniture, and anchors had been safely transported to Chatham Historic Dockyard and other storage sites. Irreplaceable treasures, such as the Cutty Sark figurehead collection and the Trust's artifacts and archives, were also off-site at the time."

The damage is dreadful to look at in the pictures and there will be a lot of work to restore this treasure but it appears it can be done with much of the original infrastructure intact.

Thank goodness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Sidewalks of New York

The Sidewalks of New York
James W. Blake and Charles E. Lawlor 1894

Down in front of Casey's old brown wooden stoop
On a summer's evening we formed a merry group
Boys and girls together we would sing and waltz
While Tony played the organ on the sidewalks of New York

East Side, West Side, all around the town
The tots sang "ring-a-rosie," "London Bridge is falling down"
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

That's where Johnny Casey, little Jimmy Crowe
Jakey Krause, the baker, who always had the dough
Pretty Nellie Shannon with a dude as light as cork
She first picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York

Things have changed since those times, some are up in "G"
Others they are wand'rers but they all feel just like me
They'd part with all they've got, could they once more walk
With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York

Monday, September 17, 2007

What is a Boy?

Boys Playing in the Water by Albert Edelfelt, 1884

What is A Boy? - Attributed to Alan Marshall Beck in a Reader's Digest article in 1954.

Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy. Boys come in assorted sizes, weights and colors, but all boys have the same creed: to enjoy every second of every minute of every hour of every day and to protest with noise (their only weapon) when their last minute is finished and the adult males pack them off to bed at night.

Boys are found everywhere--on top of, underneath, inside of, climbing on, swinging from, running around, or jumping to. Mothers love them, little girls hate them, older sisters and brothers tolerate them, adults ignore them, and Heaven protects them. A boy is Truth with dirt on its face, Beauty with a cut on its finger, Wisdom with bubble gum in its hair, and the Hope of the future with a frog in its pocket.

When you are busy, a boy is an inconsiderate, bothersome, intruding jangle of noise. When you want him to make a good impression, his brain turns to jelly, or else he becomes a savage, sadistic jungle creature bent on destroying the world and himself with it.

A boy is a composite--he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword swallower, the energy of a pocket-sized atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyan, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker, and when he makes something he has five thumbs on each hand.

He likes ice cream, knives, saws, Christmas, comic books, the boy across the street, woods, water (in its natural habitat), large animals, Dad, trains, Saturday mornings, and fire engines. He is not much for Sunday School, company, schools, books without pictures, music lessons, neckties, barbers, gifts, overcoats, adults, or bedtime.

Nobody else is so early to rise, or so late to supper. Nobody else gets so much fun out of trees, dogs, and breezes. Nobody else can cram into one pocket a rusty knife, a half-eaten apple, three feet of string, an empty Bull Durham sack, two gum drops, six cents, a slingshot, a chunk of unknown substance, and a genuine supersonic code ring with a secret compartment.

A boy is a magical creature--you can lock him out of your workshop, but you can't lock him out of your heart. You can get him out of your study, but you can't get him out of your mind. Might as well give up--he is your captor, your jailer, your boss, and your master--a freckle-faced, pint-sized, cat-chasing, bundle of noise. But when you come home at night with only the shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams, he can mend them like new with the two magic words, 'Hi Dad!'"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sampler: The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were-- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.

They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.

"Now, my dears," said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, "you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Now run along, and don't get into mischief. I am going out."

Then old Mrs. Rabbit took a basket and her umbrella, and went through the wood to the baker's. She bought a loaf of brown bread and five currant buns.

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, who were good little bunnies, went down the lane to gather blackberries; but Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor's garden, and squeezed under the gate!

First he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes; and then, feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley.

But round the end of a cucumber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!

To Boldly Go . . .

To Boldly Go . . . - There are two forms of exploration, one mental and the other physical. The mental side of exploration is captured by the physicist Schrödinger's (of Schrödinger's cat fame) comment that "The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees."

Kids can be extraordinarily innovative and perceptive explorers in Schrödinger's sense. They see everything with a freshness that is often hard for adults to recapture. Their constant questions of "why?" are often not so annoying because of the repetition but because they force us to answer questions we have either never answered for ourselves or answered so long ago that we have either forgotten or we realize the answer we had wasn't a particularly good one. Hence the ubiquity of the utilitarian "because I said so".

In Schrödinger's sense, one of the very first places of exploration for children is language and speech followed shortly afterwards by reading. Ruth Krauss's A Hole is to Dig entertainingly recaptures the innovativeness of thought and speech that children can so easily display.

One of my sons, for whatever reason, has a particular affinity for unconsciously manipulating language to serve his ends. A number of years ago when he was not more than two or three, his older sister was invited to a birthday party. I took them both over and deposited sister in the backyard with the celebrant and the rest of the party. On the way out the family's Jack Russell terrier came bounding over to us, jumping it seemed all the way to my waist, begging for attention. This little india-rubber ball of energy was impossible to ignore. Youngest son squatted down on his three year old haunches and started petting and cooing over the dog who just loved the attention, wiggling, twisting, licking. Not able to contain himself, the terrier jumped up to lick my son on the face just as he was bending down open-mouthed. I saw my son leap back with a squawk, blurting out "He licked me in my tongue-pit." A tongue-pit - well, I can't deny that that isn't a perfectly good description of your mouth but it would never have occurred to me to describe it as such.

But what about the more traditional exploration, the physical movement into the world to discover that which is not commonly known, that which has been forgotten or that which is unknown to the explorer. Though not explicitly called out as "exploration", that sense of discovery and wonderment is an integral part of so much of our canon of great children's books. It takes only a moment to start racking up the instances where exploration sets the stage for the main story but also establishes the engagement with the reader and the emotional momentum. Think of the Lucy, Edward, Susan and Peter exploring the professor's mysterious old house in the Chronicle's of Narnia, similarly of Mary exploring her uncle's estate in The Secret Garden. Many of the shipwreck-type stories are, at their core, as much about exploration and discovery, as they are about survival. Think of Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Mysterious Island, Coral Island, etc. What is it on this island that I can find to help me survive?

This near-environment exploration is intimately familiar to most children, often associated with visits to grandparents and other relatives. I can recall with crystal clarity the sensory and emotional excitement of arriving at either of my grandparent's homes. There was certainly the excitement of seeing them again, the smell of their houses, the unpacking, and all the other routines. But within 24 hours there was a careful skirmishing line of myself and siblings combing the garage, the tool shed in the back corner of the garden, the attic, the toy drawer in the back room and so on. These things that were different in some way to that to which we were accustomed or were likely to have changed since last being explored had a magnetic quality that drew us to them.

And the more traditional stories of exploration of land, sea and space? At one time those were much more prominent in children's literature than they are now. I am afraid we have fallen into a sloppy sentimentality and a self-indulgent censoriousness about the carnage and destruction that can follow from exploration. It is too easy institutionally for us to hold ourselves up as moral paragons by condemning the past, ignoring the great probability that we will, in turn, be condemned as primitives in the future.

Which is not to say that there isn't a delicate line to be trod between naively wanting everything to remain the same and never change (the path that generally ensures there are no short-term discomforts, but which leads to stagnation and ultimate dissolution) and boldly understating the potentially destructive impact of exploration and discovery. The Victorians were guilty of the latter sin in their children's books of exploration - the white man came and everything was better. But what adventurous and gripping tales some of those books were. Today, we are at the far arc (or at least I hope it is at the furthest extent of its arc) of the swinging pendulum; when we discuss courageous exploration, it is so often with a negative connotation and condemnation for the consequences which were either inevitable or unpredictable.

With the whole world of genetic science unleashing new discoveries virtually everyday and, in the process, helping to reveal our own past explorations, older young adults have a plethora of really intriguing books such as The Seven Daughters of Eve, Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, or even the more traditional historical narratives such as Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Pathfinders A Global History of Exploration, to read. In Fernandez-Armesto's book, he is explicit about the dynamic of divergence and convergence - we all burst out of Africa a hundred thousand years ago and spilled into the rest of the world over the next fifty thousand years, then spent fifty thousand years filling up those newly occupied continents and evolving to our local circumstances. Then, in the past couple of thousand years we have begun to converge upon one another again. While the convergence is often hugely productive in terms of intellectual progress (think of Hellenism) it is also immensely and unavoidably destructive as we introduce our germs (along with our ideas) to one another when we don't have uniform resistance to those germs.

Below are a list of the above mentioned books as well as some of the more gripping narrative tales of physical exploration around the world. Couch that exploration in whatever moral terms are most appropriate, but I think it is worthwhile for children to not only understand the history itself, but to see the examples courageous (and yes, greedy etc.) exploration, without which we would all be poorer.

Keats in three stanzas captures much of what I am attempting to tackle here: the wonder of what is revealed through exploration (goodly states and kingdoms seen): the exploration through the mind (till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold); and the physical exploration (like stout Cortez).

On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer
John Keats

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Picture Books

A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Lewis and Clark by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Richard Williams

One Morning in Maine written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey

Independent Readers

Coral Island by R.M. Ballyntine

The Incredible Journey of Lewis and Clarke by Rhoda Blumberg

York's Adventures with Lewis and Clark: An African-American's Part in the Great Expedition by Rhoda Blumberg

Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa by Don Brown

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Dive! My Adventures in the Deep Frontier by Sylvia A. Earle

Seaman's Journal On the Trail with Lewis and Clark by Patti Reeder Eubank

Around the World in a Hundred Years From Henry the Navigator to Magellan by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Anthony Bacon Venti

Where Do You Think You Are Going, Christopher Columbus? by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Margot Tomes

Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Ferdinand Magellan by Milton Meltzer

Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea by Scott O'Dell

Space Exploration by Carole Stott and illustrated by Steve Gorton

Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

Young Adult

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

Lost City of the Inca's by Hiram Bingham

Pathfinders by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

The Explorers by Tim Flannery

Dragon Hunter Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions by Charles Gallenkamp

Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

1421 The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies

Antarctica by Walter Dean Myers

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

Travels Into the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park

Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes

Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade

Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss and illustrated by Louis John Rhead